Still Memorable

One year ago, I was sitting in a small corporate apartment in Cupertino, California, scanning Craigslist for a home in San Francisco. My husband had been here for two months already, having landed his dream job. The cats were here and getting settled, enjoying a little more sunlight than what was typical for Chicago this time of the year. Things were changing much more quickly than we had intended, that’s for sure.

But all that being said, I was so excited I couldn’t stand it. It was that “pee in your pants kind of excited” – know what I mean?! And one year later, I know for sure it was the best decision ever.

I think I knew that the second he accepted his job. I think I knew the year before that we could live in California. And ironically enough, after reading back through a past trip to wine country, I laughed at the fact that I’d suggested it then. Clearly, this was all meant to be.

And don’t get me wrong – I love North Carolina and I love Chicago. But this is home now. Sure, there have been adjustments made along the way. We’re outdoors more, we commute longer, we spend more money on wine, and we never ever worry about snow. We also miss many folks who are now even farther away, including our family. We see them all less than we’d like, but we try to make up for it in phone calls and internet face time and email. It’s not the same, but it is a good effort, and we get by with it.

This pudding is similar in that respect. It is a somewhat last-minute adjustment. I’d planned on making a roasted banana pudding for dessert this past Valentines day, but as per usual Whole Foods seemed to only carry ultra unripened ‘naners. So instead of making lackluster ‘naner puddin’, I picked up some strawberries instead, since they seem to always be in season out here. Hopefully they’ll be coming to a market near you soon, too.

With a couple of necessary changes, the puddin’ turned out to be pretty awesome, maybe even better than what I’d planned, when it came down to it. It’s a good example of how not going off of what’s written on paper worked – how taking a chance paid off in the end. And now, it’s not the same as hopping off to California, but it’s still memorable nonetheless.

Basil Balsamic Strawberry Pudding
inspired by Cooking Light; serves 4

time commitment: 2 hours (1 hour is for chilling the pudding)

printable version

1.5 lbs fresh strawberries, cut into thin slices
2 T balsamic vinegar
1 c skim milk
1/3 c sugar, divided
1/4 c basil, whole
1 T arrowroot powder or cornstarch
pinch of salt
1 egg
1/2 T butter
1 t vanilla extract
6 oz frozen whipped topping, thawed
18 vanilla wafers, divided

pre-heat oven to 350.

Place strawberries on a sheet pan and drizzle them with balsamic vinegar. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Remove and cool completely.

Combine milk and 1/3 cup sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer (do not boil). Add basil.

Combine remaining 1/3 cup sugar, cornstarch, salt, and eggs in a medium bowl; stir well with a whisk. Gradually add hot milk mixture (removing basil beforehand) to sugar mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Return milk mixture to pan. Cook over medium heat until thick and bubbly (about 3 minutes), stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add half of the cooled strawberries, butter, and vanilla, stirring until butter melts. Place pan in a large ice-filled bowl for 15 minutes or until mixture comes to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Fold half of whipped topping into pudding.

Spread 1/8 of the custard into the bottom of four single serving dishes or glasses. Top each with 2 vanilla wafers and distribute half of the remaining strawberries on top. Spoon the rest of the custard into the dishes over strawberries. Repeat procedure with 2 more wafers in each dish followed by the remaining strawberries. Distribute the remaining half of whipped topping evenly over the top of each. Crush remaining 2 wafers; sprinkle over top. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until chilled.


Better Late Than Never

Man, long weekends really do fly by, don’t they? For those of us with so-called regular 8-5’s, a standard Saturday-Sunday weekend never seems like long enough – no matter how much you like your job. For whatever reason, the few and far between holiday ‘long weekends’ never seem much better, once it’s all said and done.

Except for this weekend – we seemed to cram quite a bit o’ fun into those three days; a tradition I think I can stick to easily, quite honestly.

The weekend started off with a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market with Chris and my fellow SF transplant via Chicago friend, Judy. While I do adore Chicago’s Green City Market, I have to vote for SF’s markets, hands down, but given the plethora of fresh produce in these parts it’d be hard not to. For starters, I found a stand indoors that specializes in mushrooms and guess what they also brought on the field trip to the market – ramps! Holy hell it took a lot for me to hold it together, but I did – just barely.

Needless to say, ramps were purchased and grilled this weekend. But also! There are fresh oysters at the end of a mere 60-minute line. You don’t get that at most markets, do ya? Probably overpriced, but totally worth it that day.

Saturday ended with an x-box date with Jennifer & Jon (laugh it up, but it is totally awesome), and Sunday was pretty much grill/beer/friends fest. Also, a lot of youtube videos. There was plenty of solid food that will be discussed in a matter of time, but at the forefront of my mind is ice cream.

Oh, right. Saturday also consisted of a trip to The Haight, and Ben & Jerry’s. But that’s not the ice cream that’s on my mind, you see.

It seems I’m grabbing up all of Spring’s produce at the last minute: ramps, strawberries, rhubarb, even fava beans. I figure: better late than never, right? Things stick around a little bit longer out here, and I had to remind myself that even though the produce is more prevalent, it will eventually run out – even here. I got lucky with the ramps, and the rhubarb doesn’t seem to be quite as abundant as I’d expected, either.

Nonetheless, find some I did, and with it I put the ol’ ice cream maker to work for the first time this year. Eating homemade ice cream always leaves me feeling a little bit sheepish, kicking myself in the ass for not making more frozen treats than I do.

Because when your holiday Monday is spent by taking a 2-hour bike trip through the park and to the beach (the beach!) and back, finished off by lounging in the park with a husband, a magazine, and a beer, there’s only one thing that’s missing from that equation, and that’s a pint of fresh, homemade ice cream.

Strawberry-Basil-Rhubarb Ice Cream
adapted from Cooking Light, May 2010; serves 8

time commitment: less than 1 hour for preparing ice cream + at least 8 hours to freeze afterwards

printable version

2 1/2 c reduced fat milk
3/4 c half-and-half
1 handful of fresh basil (~1/2 c)
1 c sugar, divided
3 egg yolks
3 stalks of rhubarb
1/3 c Malbec or other red wine
1 lb fresh chopped strawberries

Combine milk, half-and-half, and basil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat milk mixture to 180° or until tiny bubbles form around edge (do not boil). Combine 1/2 cup sugar and egg yolks in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk until pale yellow. Remove basil and gradually add half of hot milk mixture to egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Pour the egg yolk mixture into pan with remaining milk mixture; cook over medium-low heat until a thermometer registers 160° (about 2 minutes), stirring constantly. Place pan in a large ice-filled bowl for 20 minutes or until custard cools completely, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, combine remaining 1/2 cup sugar, rhubarb, and wine in a saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes or until rhubarb is tender and liquid is syrupy. Remove from heat; let stand 10 minutes. Combine rhubarb mixture and strawberries in a blender; process until smooth. Strain mixture through a sieve over a bowl, pressing with a wooden spoon; discard solids. Stir rhubarb mixture into custard mixture.

Pour custard into the freezer can of an ice-cream freezer; freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Battle Ginger: Luck of the Draw

In Iron Chef land, winning is everything. Well, winning and spending time with friends, is everything. A win is a true testament to your culinary skills, your creativity, and in some cases, your hard work. And if that wasn’t enough, winning entitles you, as Iron Chef, to select the theme ingredient the next time around. It is a daunting, but coveted, task. When that task is yours, you take advantage and choose wisely, not knowing when, or even if, you’ll ever get that chance again.

Unless that is, you are as busy as Emily, our past reigning Iron Chef and one of our founding competitors. Up to her eyelids in work events and such obligations, she was forced to surrender her title prior to battle, unable to even select the ingredient, let alone defend her throne. Bummer, huh?

As a result, our ensuing party was ingredient-less, and we were in need of a quick fix given our decision to forge ahead, otherwise put off IC for another two months. So, someone was about to get lucky; we decided to draw a name and that person would choose, and that person was Rachel. To my excitement, she chose well, and in no time, Battle Ginger was upon us.

Ten Iron Chefs in, I’ve learned to choose a dish quickly, unwaveringly, and with confidence. I was ready on Wednesday, knowing sushi would be made, along with a strange dessert I’d never heard of, ‘oeufs à la niege’ which for those who either aren’t French or haven’t taken a couple of semesters of it in college, means ‘eggs in the snow’.

You start out by separating a few eggs, and with the egg whites you whip them with sugar and ginger into a smooth silken bowl of firm, shiny peaks. And instead of slathering the meringue onto the base of a key lime pie and then breaking out your blow torch, you poach said meringues, dollop by dollop, in milk that’s flavored with cardamom and a generous amount of ginger – or if you have a crowd of lactose-challenged people, you use almond milk instead, which works perfectly.

After the little meringues are poached and literally resembling hard-boiled and peeled eggs, you turn that almond milk into custard using the remaining milk and egg. Sure, you could use that custard to spin up some ice cream, but then these little eggies would be snow-less, and that’d be a sad state of affairs.

Especially if those eggs-in-custard win you back your Iron Chef title :). Just sayin’.

Left to right: vegan ginger chocolate cupcakes with ‘cream cheese’ icing, ginger chocolate cookies, ginger ale & vodka, ginger-garlic shrimp and asparagus with ginger rice, ginger rogers cocktail, crunchy shrimp sushi roll with ginger-soy sauce and pickled ginger, ginger and pecan stuffed apples, vegan butternut squash and ginger chili, ginger crab cakes with tomato-ginger jam.

The Top Three:

  1. Ginger-Cardamom Oeufs à la Niege (dairy & gluten-free)
  2. Butternut Squash & Ginger Chili (vegan & gluten-free)
  3. Ginger Crab Cakes w/ Ginger-Tomato Jam


In Chi-town and wanna join? Holler! Next IC: 7/10/10.

Ginger Cardamom Oeufs à la Niege
Adapted from Gourmet, September 2008; makes 8

i’m so not kidding here – this is an easy dessert that can be made well in advance, and the recipe is easily adaptable to other flavor variations. i picture a chocolate-basil version, and now i’m drooling. and if you’re not lactose-intolerant, feel free to use whole milk instead of almond milk. to halve the recipe, use 3 eggs (2 whites and 2 yolks + 1 whole), a little less sugar, and half the milk.

printable version

4 eggs
3/4 c sugar, divided
1  t ground ginger, divided
4 c almond milk
1 chunk of fresh peeled ginger (size of your thumb)
1/4 t ground cardamom
1/2 t cornstarch
1/8 t salt
1/2 t vanilla extract
1/4 c shelled pistachios, chopped

Line bottom of a small sheet pan with parchment paper.

Separate 3 eggs; put yolks in a large bowl and whites in another. Add remaining whole egg to yolks.

Beat whites with a pinch of salt using an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. Add 1/2 c + 1 T sugar and 1/2 t ground ginger in a slow stream, beating at medium-high speed until whites hold stiff, glossy peaks.

Meanwhile, bring almond milk to a bare simmer with remaining ground ginger, fresh ginger, and cardamom in a wide 4-quart heavy pot over medium heat.

Drop 8 large dollops (or 16 small, depending on what they’re being served in; if large bowl use large dollops) of beaten whites into milk and poach at a bare simmer, turning once, 4 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to lined pan (reserve milk). Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Whisk remaining 3 T sugar, cornstarch, and salt into yolk mixture. Add hot almond milk in a slow stream, whisking until incorporated, then return to pot. Cook, stirring often, until thickened and an instant-read thermometer registers 170 F. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl. Stir in vanilla. Drop ginger back into mixture and allow it to continue to steep in hot custard until ready to serve.

Quick-chill custard by setting bowl in an ice bath and stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes or refrigerate until ready to use. Remove ginger chunk and ladle chilled custard into 8 bowls (or cups) and put a meringue in each. Sprinkle with nuts.

Foodbuzz 24,24,24: Battle Peppercorn

Battle Peppercorn Group


Legally, a ‘peppercorn’ is a very small payment used to satisfy the requirements for the creation of a legal contract.


The term isn’t too far fetched for our purposes: months ago, we created a friendly competition that’s held monthly (‘contract’, very loosely) and we bring food (thus satisfying the payment required for the creating of said ‘contract’) for all to enjoy, and for all to judge. We eat, we drink, we battle, and we have a jolly good time. A damn jolly good time.


the spread


You thought I was kidding? Well, you got me. I never have had a good poker face, now did I? This here battle is all about food and nothing about that legal schmegal stuff. You see, (for you newbies), you’re entering the realm of the (Chicago) Iron Chef Competition. Yeah, that’s right. Well, potluck, to be more accurate. Our meager kitchen pales in comparison to Kitchen Stadium. And we’re not ballsy enough to cook, er, flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak. But I do love food, and I do love casual gatherings with girlfriends, old & new. So a while back, I easily found a few peeps who shared those feelings, and we created these friendly little gatherings to satisfy both – we haven’t looked back (for the initial installation, see this post, which remains my favorite of them all).




But last month, last month we (which was really I) made a mistake. We had a smaller group due to a number of issues – mainly the simple fact that it was summer – so we (as a special occasion-and-one-time-only) invited the boys. I know……but we thought for sure they’d lose and we’d go on about our business in September with monthly girls’ night. I mistakenly thought the boys were only along for the ride, or rather, the drinks and the ‘free food’. But the hubs knocked it outta the park with some lamb & fig skewers, and the rest of the guys’ dishes were nothing short of tasty – they placed first and second, actually.


peppercorn chicken wings


So, for the past month, I’ve had to live with being called his ‘sous chef’ (even though I’m the one who just finished a year of culinary school) and listening to him whine about his constant struggle to choose the secret ingredient for this battle and how being the winner is so hard and so much pressure. And if that weren’t bad enough, he occasionally sauntered into MY kitchen to see if he could ‘provide any guidance’. Modest, isn’t he?


apple cream cheese peppercorn


And so, here we are. Battle Peppercorn it is. And at first thought, you might suspect limitations in this theme ingredient. I beg to differ – and I’ll let the photos prove it, along with my short commentary.


You see, peppercorns aren’t just those black little balls you put in your pepper grinder. There are many iterations of peppercorn. In fact, The Spice House here in Chicago sells 7 varieties of peppercorn and 4 more peppercorn combos: a few types of black, white, green, ‘pink’, & my new favorite, szechuan. And much to Chris’ (hubs) surprise, you can even use them in sweets (Chris has a one-track mind and thinks only of grilling meats, which he does very well, mind you). In fact, of our 12 total dishes, 5 of them were desserts – one of them literally taking the cake.


pink peppercorn cupcakes


So what did we have at this little shindig? We had 5 appetizer-style dishes, ranging from szechuan chicken satay to black pepper biscuits w/ orange blueberry marmalade to pepper cream cheese apples. We had two ‘main course’ dishes – hubs did a play on ‘steak and potatoes’ that was inspired by our recent visit to Alinea (complete with wine pairing) and we also had seafood peppercorn skewers. And after all that goodness, 5 sweets from a spicy chocolate mousse to peppercorn and bacon brownies to black pepper custard.


[I did the usual two dishes, a sweet and savory: szechuan chicken satay w/ Indonesian peanut sauce and pink peppercorn & chocolate cupcakes w/ peppercorn chocolate ganache. This time, I wasn’t in the kitchen all day, just a good part of it!]


"steak and potatoes"


And oh my. By the second appetizer, I was practically down for the count. But when it comes to food, you can’t keep this one down, so I trudged on, as did the rest of us. In the midst of all the gluttony, we all judged each and every dish (well, most of us, as there are some dietary restrictions in the crowd) and at the end of the night, the scores were tallied and the new Iron Chef was announced.


For the first time, we had a three way tie – for second (or as I once politely dubbed it, first loser)! With four battles under our belts, we’ve never had a tie, and then we somehow ended up with one involving not just two, but three, dishes. Either way, we had a clear winner:


– 1st Place: Jim’s Peppercorn Custard w/ Chocolate Valentino Cake
– 2nd Place, the 3-way tie:
– Jennifer’s Spicy Chocolate Mousse
– Jennifer’s Black Pepper Chicken Wings
– Chris’ Steak & Potatoes
– 3rd Place: Hope’s Peppercorn Cream Cheese Apples


peppercorn custard
Yes – I will admit again – big mistake, big. Huge! Like the Bears, the boys are on a two game streak. You might imagine, I’m glad Jennifer’s on my “team” – two great dishes! So for next time, I’m bringing my A game and then some. I’m sure the rest of the ladies will too. These past couple of battles – let’s just consider them the pre-season.


Peppercorn Custard
Adapted from Chika Tillman @ ChikaLicious

2 cups heavy cream (Jim prefers local retailers over mass distributed brands like Deans)
2 cups whole milk (same thing – he used Oberweis – our favorite milk!)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns (crushed or grinded)
8 egg yolks (Jim says he might use 6 next time)

Heat the heavy cream, milk, sugar, and pepper in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.

Remove from heat and let mixture steep for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, place the egg yolks in a medium mixing bowl and beat well with a wire whisk.

Return the cream mixture to medium heat and bring to a simmer again. Remove from heat. Temper the hot mixture into the eggs by slowly pouring the cream into them in a thin stream, while constantly whisking the eggs with a whisk.

Strain the egg-and-cream mixture through a fine-mesh strainer back into the saucepan. Return it to the stove and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the custard base has thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon. Strain again if needed.

Cool the custard in an ice bath until it is completely cold. (Jim bought a bag of ice, dropped it in a cooler and cooled the mix to room temp in an open container (to prevent condensation from making the base too “watery”) and then sealed the container and covered it with ice for another hour. After that he transferred it to the freezer for 30 minutes until it was cold enough to freeze.)

Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Place in a covered plastic container and store in the freezer overnight.

Chocolate Valentino Cake
Adapted from Sweet Treats by Chef Wan

16 ounces of your favourite chocolate, roughly chopped
½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
5 large eggs, separated

Put chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl should not touch the water) and melt, stirring often.

While your chocolate butter mixture is cooling. Butter your pan and line with a parchment circle then butter the parchment.

Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites and put into two medium/large bowls.

Whip the egg whites in a medium/large grease free bowl until stiff peaks are formed (do not over-whip or the cake will be dry).

With the same beater beat the egg yolks together.

Add the egg yolks to the cooled chocolate.

Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and follow with remaining 2/3rds. Fold until no white remains without deflating the batter.

Pour batter into prepared pan, the batter should fill the pan 3/4 of the way full, and bake at 375F/190C9. Bake for 25 minutes until an instant read thermometer reads 140F/60C. Note – If you do not have an instant read thermometer, the top of the cake will look similar to a brownie and a cake tester will appear wet.

Cool cake on a rack for 10 minutes then unmold.


Hooked on Iron Chef now? You should be. To keep up to date with our Battles, join this Blog, subscribe to posts, or shoot me a message in the comments that you’d like updates. With Fall officially underway, I can only imagine what tasty ingredients might be right around the corner!

If you’re in Chicago and want to cook for and eat with a bunch of strangers who love food, we’re happy to have you! Next battle – October 24!

Previous Battles:
Battle Basil
Battle Coconut

Battle Strawberry
Battle Fig

Note: photos 4,5,6,7,12,13 taken by Lindsay, the wife of Iron Chef Jim, not to mention a stellar cook, blogger, and photographer!